Joanna Alpern reviews ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’, at the Byre Theatre, St Andrews, 10 April 2012
Set in 1940s New Orleans, A Streetcar Named Desire takes place over the course of a hot feisty summer, and features a loud fight-to-the-death between the famous Southern belle, Blanche DuBois and her ‘primitive’ brother-in-law, Stanley Kowalski.
But the opening of this production was as quiet as a streetcar sitting stationary, with its engine switched off. Blanche is supposed to be exhaustingly animated, at times loud to the point of shrill, but Emily Webb was barely audible. And the famous ‘Stella’ shouting scene left me suspecting that the actors had been rehearsed to the point of laryngitis. Some lines I actually found awkward, for example ‘Stop this hysterical outburst’, ‘I never had your energy’ and ‘I don’t care if she hears me’; for there had been no hysterical outburst, little energy, and it didn’t seem as if they cared whether the audience had heard them or not.
The volume did improve somewhat throughout the play, and the acting definitely sharpened up. William McGhee’s Stanley became grippingly tyrannical, Carly Brown’s Stella lacked pluck but had a sweet saving smile and her concern for her sister was evident, and Harshad Samburmurthy’s Mitch was spot-on, his transformation from gentleman to monster seeming perfectly natural. Emily Webb’s physicality was brilliant, illustrating Blanche’s nervous disposition by shivering and shaking and with almost Marilyn Monroe-esque eye-widening. Her tripping and crying and panicking were apt and believable and her monologues were always delivered tenderly. But in constantly pursuing this sad and vulnerable approach, some of the role’s charisma and fun was sacrificed. Instead of weakness unravelling and intensifying throughout, it was blatant from the word go; and so from then on, little development was possible.
Three snapshots stand out for their superb visual and emotive impact: Stanley and Stella’s stairway caress in the spotlight; Blanche’s narrating the tale of her first love accompanied by the Varsouviana; and the entirety of the rape scene where the spotlight was eerily split between the scheming Stanley and his exploding beer, and a drunken Blanche on the bed. Unfortunately the ineffective blackouts immediately undermined these brilliantly composed moments so that they were built up just in time for the lights to dim and for the actors to slink casually off-stage in full eyeshot of the audience, obliterating suspension of disbelief. However, we were partially distracted during the play’s frequent scene changes by a very talented live jazz band and a subtle change in the vibrant colour projection to mark the time of day, both of which worked to conjure up the nostalgic atmosphere so central to Tennessee Williams’s writing.
Williams drenched this play in desire, the desire of the moth for the flame, of Blanche for salvation, of Stella for Stanley, of Stanley for Stella, as if to say that where desire is found, destruction is imminent. And so it’s a shame that this production was desirous of volume. With more confidence in itself, and about five times louder, it could have been exceptional.
Image credit – Johanna Alltimes